Australian women at the League of Nations: A spotlight on settler colonialism in the 1930s

Fiona Paisley begins VIDA blog’s Humanitarianism and Internationalism Series with an analysis of settler colonialism, slavery, and the role of Australian women at the League of Nations.

Bessie Rischbieth, c. 1940s. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Bessie Rischbieth, c. 1940s. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1935, an Australian delegation at the Assembly of the League of Nations watched a pivotal moment in world history unfold. From her seat on Australia’s table, Bessie Rischbieth listened attentively to the representative of Abyssinia (also known as Ethiopia), Tekle Hawariat, as he made a passionate plea for international intervention in the recent invasion of his country by Italy.

By then an experienced internationalist, Rischbieth was the Western Australian president of the Australian Federation of Women Voters (AFWV) and a member of the International Women’s Suffrage Alliance (IWSA) and British Commonwealth League. With many international conferences under her belt, she had lobbied for the inclusion of a woman on each Australian delegation to the League, a practice implemented from 1922 onwards. If not full or voting members, then women were at least represented as Australia became increasingly engaged in world affairs.

In 1935, Rischbieth was Australia’s ‘alternate’ woman delegate. The following years saw over fifteen women with backgrounds in social reform, education, journalism and peace activism attend League Assemblies. Each would give numerous lectures and radio interviews upon her return, as well as writing for newspapers about their time in Geneva.

Australian writer Frank Moorhouse found it necessary to create a fictional Australian woman, given the lack of women appointed to official roles, in his wonderful novels about the League in the 1930s, Grand Days (1993) and Dark Palace (2000). The reality was that even the one woman section leader – Dame Rachel Crowdy, the head of Traffic in Opium and Social Questions Section – was paid at a lower rate than her male counterparts. Yet from 1922 onwards numerous Australian women were at the League, attending the Assembly and joining work on economic and social questions alongside Crowdy.

As a cohort these women constitute a fascinating alternative, and ‘alternate’, history of Australia and the League. Recent histories of internationalism argue that the League might be best understood as a locale rather than an institution. Beyond Australian Dominion women with British Commonwealth worldviews, it attracted a diversity of individuals and groups including advocates for radical change in world affairs: Indian nationalists, Pan-Africanists, Levi General (Deskaheh), representing the Iroquois Nations of Canada , and – through the pages of a leading newspaper in Bern only a few hours away by train – the Aboriginal Australian activist Anthony Martin Fernando. Geneva was a vibrant site of intersecting cosmopolitanisms as well as a beacon of hope.

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Medical supplies for the front, including bales of cotton, wool, and warm blankets, c. 1935. Image via the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, c. 1935. Medical supplies for the front, including bales of cotton, wool and blankets. Image via the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Thanks to the reports of alternate women delegates, Australians at home became increasingly aware that 1935 was a turning point in world history, one that could well precipitate not only the demise of the League but another global war. Abyssinia was a fellow member of the League and proudly independent country in northern Africa. As the great hopes of the 1920s wore thin, Rischbieth and other progressive commentators feared that the crisis in Abyssinia could precipitate a ‘race’ war. Pan-African groups and colonised peoples looked on while the world failed to act against European aggression towards a Black nation, revealing in no uncertain terms the resilience of empire in the modern world order.

Official international consensus, however, was that Italy could not be compelled to withdraw from Abyssinia without precipitating an escalation of hostilities. The Australian government considered that such an outcome would present a particular risk to Australia in the Asia-Pacific region, given its vulnerability to a militarised Japan already indicating its own imperial ambitions in Manchuria.

Rather than compelling Italy to withdraw from Abyssinia, the following months would reveal how, behind the scenes, Britain and France were already negotiating appeasement. This was tantamount to an endorsement of Italy’s key defence in the affair – that its actions had been compelled by national responsibility towards its growing domestic population. As Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini declared, Italy had been forced to invade Abyssinia because it had been locked out of the scramble for Africa by other European powers at the Berlin conference in the mid-1880s.

Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, February 1934. Photograph by Walter Mittelholzer. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie, February 1934. Photograph by Walter Mittelholzer. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

What might a future ‘race’ war look like? The fighting in Abyssinia was often represented in cartoons and newspaper reports as a confrontation between the machinery of modern war – including tanks, planes and guns – and tribal leaders with spears on horseback. In the following year, news would emerge that poison gas had been used widely against Abyssinian civilians, while Red Cross hospitals had been bombed from the air. Having initially called for sanctions in the name of world peace, the AFWV sent a resolution directly to the Secretary General of the League demanding an end to this ‘barbarism’ – a word carefully chosen to reverse the usual order of civilised over uncivilised. In his speech to the Assembly in 1936, the exiled leader of Abyssinia Haile Selassie condemned the international community for its lack of action.

So much for a new world order building on the reform of colonial rule. Settler colonisation appeared once again to have been accepted as a legitimate response to the pressures of population in Europe and the demands of development. From this perspective, it seemed unlikely that India would ever become a Dominion within the British Commonwealth; or that social science expertise and humanitarianism would really be applied in Africa and the mandates in the name of trusteeship. If the Permanent Mandates Commission had been instituted to oversee reform in the former German colonies, then Australia’s High Commissioner appeared little compelled to report on New Guinea and Nauru in anything other than lackadaisical fashion.

The issue of slavery was another element in Italy’s self-defence. In the early 1920s, New Zealand called upon the world community to make slavery one of its first concerns. The Slavery Convention was ratified by the League in 1926 and the Forced Labour Convention by the International Labour Organisation in 1930. Australia became a signatory to both, routinely responding that forced labour and slavery did not exist within its borders. It was partly on the grounds of its own efforts to end traditional forms of slavery by working with the Anti-Slavery and Aborigines Protection Society that Abyssinia had become a member of the League. The society was at this time avidly promoting its expertise, even if viewed with suspicion by the Colonial Office in London for its criticisms of British as well as other empires. Abyssinia was one of its cause célèbres.

When Selassie spoke to the Assembly in 1936 he also rejected the common accusation that the practice of slavery in his own country provided humanitarian justification for Italy’s invasion. Reminding Europe that it had invented industrial forms of slavery even following the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and British colonial slavery in 1833, he claimed that his country was working to end traditional forms of servitude in which those enslaved (he asserted) benefitted nonetheless from their labour, however unfree.

Another prospect in the Italo-Abyssinian crisis was the rise of fascism in world affairs. In Australia, public opinion was reportedly little disposed to any action against Italy beyond minor sanctions. However, some women’s organisations were calling for harsh measures. Australian Italians of pro-fascist politics expressed their support for the invasion in the pages of their own press, while anti-fascists organised a ‘Hands Off Abyssinia’ campaign in the streets of Sydney. This campaign denounced the invasion as colonial violence, warning of Mussolini’s larger aims in relation to the newly opened Suez Canal. As recorded in Rischbieth’s own clippings file for 1935, Catholic leaders in Western Australia who held opposing views on the invasion were equally critical of those criticising Italy’s behaviour in Abyssinia without acknowledging Australia’s bad record in relation to the Indigenous population.

Australian delegation to the International Woman Suffrage Alliance Congress in Rome, 1923. Image via the National Library of Australia.
Australian delegation to the International Woman Suffrage Alliance Congress in Rome, 1923. Image via the National Library of Australia.

As to her own views on fascism, Rischbieth supported democratic government in 1923 as a member of the Australian delegation attending the IWSA conference in Rome. Personally, however, she had enjoyed meeting Mussolini at a reception during which he was asked by delegates to give the vote to Italian women.

Italy’s assertion that ending slavery in Abyssinia would only be achieved through colonisation illustrates the mobility of anti-slavery politics in the interwar era and its potency in contemporary world affairs. Not least, Italy’s anti-slavery claims were being made at the same time as humanitarian and women’s networks in Australia and Britain were protesting that Aboriginal people in Australia experienced conditions at odds with international standards on slavery and forced labour. This tension was clear in the extraordinary work of Mary Montgomery Bennett.

Australia’s reputation with respect to slavery, despite annual reports to the League claiming otherwise, was far from uncontroversial and did not go unchallenged. Not only in New Guinea but also among Aboriginal people within Australia, forced labour and sexual exploitation received particular national and international attention in 1935. The report of an inquiry into Aboriginal conditions in Western Australia, in part initiated by women activists’ claims about how conditions akin to slavery were effectively endorsed by state and federal policies, had been finally released. The report’s findings fell short of accusations of slavery, yet its conclusion that poor funding and lack of expertise condemned Aboriginal people to a range of injustices brought settler colonialism in Australia under increased national and international scrutiny. This occurred at the very same time as Italy’s actions in Abyssinia made headlines.

Rischbieth was well aware of this. Her newspaper clippings from 1935 chart these developments, and she had also been part of a British Dominion network of women’s organisations whose protest about conditions among Aboriginal people helped to bring about the inquiry. Rischbieth even gave evidence at the inquiry herself. And yet she did not explicitly connect the two in either her notes kept at the time or during her talks after her return home.

Palais des Nations, featuring the Celestial Sphere donated by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation in 1939. Photograph by Fiona Paisley.
Palais des Nations, featuring the Celestial Sphere donated by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation in 1939. Photograph by Fiona Paisley.

What amounted to silence on the comparison between a world crisis surrounding one of the world’s newest settler colonies in Africa and Australia’s record over nearly 150 years confirms the point made elsewhere: Rischbieth was not an activist of Bennett’s degree about such matters. But it also points to how criticising settler colonisation was problematic for Rischbieth. Like her peers, she supported the White Australia Policy on the grounds that it was a progressive and humane response to the widely proclaimed and supposedly insurmountable differences between ‘ways of life’ in Anglo-Australia and ‘Asia’. White settlement of the continent, and in the region, represented two facets of the same inter/national narrative.

In her talks back in Australia, then, Rischbieth preferred to rehearse Italy’s argument. In this view, Italy had a right to secure resources for its own people. In order to preclude such actions in future, she called for a more equitable distribution of resources and for renewed efforts to develop the so-called less-advanced nations in order to protect them from future invasion. Rischbieth hoped that Australia would take heed of this advice in regard to its mandates to the north. Thus, humanitarianism and national interest were sometimes aligned.

Winged sculpture, Palais des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland. The allegorical figure is one half of a male and female pair. Photograph by Fiona Paisley.
Winged sculpture, Palais des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland. The allegorical figure is one half of a male and female pair. Photograph by Fiona Paisley.

Finally, the project of intervention in traditional societies like Abyssinia provided a respite from the more problematic issue of self-reform by the imperial, colonial and mandated nations – to which we can add the settler Dominions. When Mary Jamieson Williams – alternate delegate to the League in the year of the centenary of abolition in the British empire, 1933 – spoke to the Traffic in Women Section about the problem of slavery among Aboriginal people in Australia, she did not refer to indentured, unpaid labour or removal but to what she considered to be the servitude of women in Aboriginal society. This was a view informed by the latest findings of mostly male anthropology.

As the Abyssinian case indicates, slavery politics in the League era were deeply entwined in the progressive agendas for the reform of imperial and colonial rule. Like other humanitarianisms, anti-slavery internationalism reiterated the very kinds of racial and national hierarchy it supposedly sought to overturn, and in the process helped to legitimate the claims of the so-called advanced nations to world leadership. Australia, like Abyssinia, could be seen as one of these projects of uplift, but only if tradition rather than colonisation was the central concern. Bessie Rischbieth’s account of Geneva in 1935 shows how the modern anti-slavery cause was adaptable to various world contexts, able to mask certain conditions of injustice and inequality while supposedly eradicating others.

See full article: ‘The Italo-Abyssinian Crisis and Australia Settler Colonialism in 1935‘, History Compass Special Issue on Anti Slavery and Settler Colonialism in World History. 15:5 (2017).

Fiona-paisleyFiona Paisley is a historian at Griffith University in Brisbane. Her current research includes an investigation of Australia in mid-twentieth anti-slavery debates; and middle-class Australia and internationalism at home during the interwar years. The full-length version of her article, ‘The Italo-Abyssinian Crisis and Australian Settler Colonialism in 1935,’ is forthcoming in her special issue on anti-slavery and Australia in History Compass.

Follow Fiona on Twitter @fpaisleyhistory.

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